February 19, 2009

Alliance Seeks To Bridge Mobile Technology, Healthcare

This week marks the launch of a new public support alliance aimed at advancing the use of mobile phones and mobile technology to better aid healthcare patients, the AFP reported.

The Mobile Health (mHealth) Alliance is a partnership started by the Rockefeller Foundation, the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation with the ultimate goal of having a phone serve as a "doctor in your pocket". The idea has gained traction at the industry's biggest trade show, the Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona.

"When you consider that there are 2.2 billion mobile phones in the developing world, 305 million computers but only 11 million hospital beds you can instantly see how mobiles can create effective solutions to address healthcare challenges," said Terry Kramer, strategy director at British operator Vodafone.

A recent study released by the UN and Vodafone titled, "mHealth for Development: The Opportunity of Mobile Technology for Healthcare in the Developing World," is a plan detailing mobile healthcare technology for 51 programs in 26 countries.

They hope that doctors and nurses working at distance from hospitals or clinics will be able to use mobile connections to relay information on to local patients or report disease outbreaks.

So far, India has signed up with 11 projects and South Africa and Uganda have six each.

Daniel Carucci, vice-president of health at the UN Foundation, told delegates that innovative technology could reduce the pressure on public healthcare systems.

For instance, a multiple-choice quiz about HIV/AIDS was sent to 15,000 subscribers on the Celtel network in a rural region of Uganda, inviting them to answer questions and seek tests.

Those who completed the quiz were given free airtime and received a message informing them of the correct response each time they answered a question incorrectly.

A final SMS was sent at the end of the quiz to motivate participants to go for voluntary testing and counseling at a local health center.

The report said a little less than one in five responded and the number of people who went for testing at the center increased from 1,000 to 1,400 during a six-week period.

It also said that health workers in the Amazonas state of Brazil began filling in surveys last October on their mobile phones on incidences of the mosquito-borne dengue fever.

Luzia de Melo Mustafa, an Amazonas health agent, said the devices are providing them with precision and the information they need to develop effective responses in the areas where the infection levels are high.

A medical hotline called MedicallHome was launched in Mexico in 1998 to provide for people without access to a doctor. They can ring or send an SMS to ask medical questions.

Pedro Yrigoyen, co-founder of MedicallHome, said 60 percent of the time you can replace the doctor, highlighting the fact that mobile phones outnumber fixed lines in Mexico by five-to-one.

"Public healthcare is overwhelmed... people wait for hours just to see the doctor."

However, there are limitations for mobile phones to help in public health information campaigns, according to Elizabeth Boehm, an analyst at research group Forrester.

"One of the main challenges, in mobile health, is that people who are most in need of healthcare are usually more aged, so they don't use the mobile or they're not comfortable with it," she told AFP.

Researchers are also looking for ways to harness mobile technology in the developed world.

Diabetes patients in several countries can measure their blood sugar level with a device connected to a mobile phone that sends the data to doctors for verification. Various other applications allow for monitoring people with heart problems or Alzheimer's disease.

A service in the United States called "Foodphone" enables a user to take a photo of his or her food before a meal and send it to an expert who replies with information about the nutritional value.


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